The experience of Mary, mother of Jesus shows better than any other passage in Scripture the position pastoral leaders must take between submission and subversion in order to help our churches discover their unique identity.
Luke begins his gospel with the miraculous account of how a young Jewish woman stood at the center of God’s redemptive plan for the world. She was an unlikely person for such a position. Living in a backwater of the Roman Empire, member of a powerless race, without personal means or family resources, her future predetermined by an impending marriage to a local carpenter, no more than sixteen or seventeen years old—Mary was yet the one God chose to bear his Son.
As Luke tells the story, the angel Gabriel appeared to an aged Jewish priest leading worship at the great temple of Jerusalem. Gabriel explained to the man that he and his wife were shortly to have a son, later to be known as John the Baptist. Their son would in turn become the predecessor of Jesus, the Son of God. But as astonishing as these events were, Gabriel was just getting started. A little later he appeared to the young woman named Mary with an even more astonishing message: Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you. (Luke 1:28)
Every Christmas when I read this account I’m struck once again with the wonder of it all, the delight and astonishment that God would do such a thing, and I re-visit in my imagination how it may have happened. One moment Mary’s sitting on a stool in her family’s small home, kneading dough for the evening meal maybe. Or sewing up a tear in a garment. There’s a smell of barnyard hanging around because a couple of goats spent the night penned up in the far corner. Wisps of the morning breakfast fire hang from the ceiling. Against one darkened wall an oil lamp casts a flickering light. The hum of conversation in the street outside. An average domestic scene for a woman enfolded in ancient Jewish life.
The next moment all heaven broke loose. A jolt of electricity pulsed through the stale air inside the house, followed by the feeling that somewhere a door opened. The scent of distant flowers flowed into the room. Then appeared a divine figure in a flash of glory so bright Mary held up her hand to shield her eyes. Her mind was a storm of colliding thoughts and emotions: fear rose up along with faith; doubts intersected with an unexpected joy. And a voice whispered like a mountain stream while and at the same time broke on her ears like a thunderclap.
“You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house off Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:30-33)
At the intersection between divine grace and human need stands a slender young woman with upraised hands. Does she understand what the angel tells her? Not most of it. Can she fit the announcement into her previous experience? Of course not. But neither could have the wisest rabbi of her day, nor, for that matter, the most accomplished theologian of our own. Can she know where the divine summons might lead her? That would be impossible. Can she lay out the future steps she’ll need to take in order to obey what God has told her to do? Again, no. All she knows—all she’s able to know or needs to know—is that God has summoned her to accept a plan larger than any she could have imagined on her own. The Church has celebrated, admired and tried to emulate Mary’s response ever since: “’I am the Lord’s servant’” Mary answered. ‘May it be to me as you have said’” (Luke 1:38). Mary submits to God’s plan
We think we know what submission is and we usually don’t like it. A submissive wife meekly does whatever her husband says to do, sometimes to her own detriment. Submissive children docilely obey their father’s orders, like soldiers compelled by their commanding officer. An authoritarian professor terrorizes a submissive college student. A submissive church falls meekly in line with whatever direction their pastor wants to take them. On the other hand—and much more common—a submissive pastor gives in to what his congregation wants to do and fails in his fundamental task of leadership. All too often we believe that to submit is to be weak and ineffectual, to yield our life’s prerogatives to someone else. To abandon our purpose and vision because someone or something has cowed us into obedience to his or her own. To take the back seat and let someone else drive the car. To be submissive is to be frightened and lack initiative on our own. To us, submission seems to be the very opposite of subversion.
And yet, Mary’s experience proves the opposite. Shortly after she learns of her pregnancy with the Christ child, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth. Their conversation includes one of the most startling passages in the Bible because it reveals Mary’s submissive spirit to be much more than a passive resignation to fate. Her obedience is in fact an extraordinary willingness to yield her will to a divine will that will ultimately lead to the overturn of the established world order. Mary’s submission leads directly to a divine subversion on a level no one could have conceived:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.
Because of Mary’s submission to God’s plan, rulers will lose their places of office. The rich will go without while the hungry will be fed. The proud will lose their places of influence to the humble. Even tiny, helpless Israel will be lifted to prominence. Mary prophesies of the power of God to strip existing power structures of their domination, to subvert them, remove them, tear them down, dismantle them and, finally, eliminate their authority.
Mary describes the profound connection between subversion and submission. In God’s economy, to do the one well is to participate in the other. In other words, when I submit to God’s will, I end up subverting whatever sinful and demonic orders I may be living under. And when I subvert ungodly forces attacking my life, my church or my family, then I’m submitting to God’s plan. The two work together in a way happily captured by a women’s speaker I once heard who described wifely submission to her female audience as “learning to duck so God can hit your husband.”
Church leadership isn't just an individual or a small group or even the congregation itself deciding to do something and then doing it. It's instead the fine line between subverting what shouldn't be happening while at the same time submitting to what God does indeed want to happen.